“Genie, you’re free” (goodbye to Robin Williams)

Last fall, my daughter’s 5th grade music class decided to put on a musical production of Disney’s “Aladdin”. Like every other ten-year old in the class, she wanted to audition for the role of the Genie. To prepare her for her audition, the two of us sat down in front of the television and watched the DVD of “Aladdin” to help get to know the character of the genie a little better. And while watching, I was reminded of the comic genius of the actor Robin Williams.

The genie in this film had the unique quality of being able to grant wishes to those who found his lamp. He had the ability to make people happy, and he had to do so unselfishly, knowing that he could never have what he truly wanted, which was to have no master. To have freedom from his lamp. To live life on his own terms. The genie made everyone laugh. He was larger than life, fast-talking and quick-witted, but always knowing that at the end of the day, he would have to return to his lamp. He returned depressed with the knowledge that he could help everyone but himself.

Much like the genie, Robin Williams was capable of just about anything. He could make everyone laugh. People clearly loved to be in his presence. Television hosts who had the great pleasure of interviewing him rarely were able to maintain their composures as he sat in chairs across from them, moving quickly from one comedic personality to another, able to imitate anyone, be anyone he wanted, always resulting in laughter. I’m a tough customer when it comes to things that make me laugh, that deep-from-the-belly laughter that hurts my stomach and brings tears to my eyes. But Robin Williams never failed me.

We all know of his accomplishments on screen and on stage. He was a brilliant actor and comedian, and received many awards for his efforts. But in addition to his contributions to the fine arts, he was also a generous philanthropist. A dear friend of mine who worked for MDA had the honor of meeting Mr. Williams at a fundraiser for the organization. She remembers him as being delightful and kind, truly concerned with wanting to promote awareness of the disease. Mr. Williams was involved with many charities and had the great desire to help others.

But what about helping himself? Like the Genie in “Aladdin”, was he only capable of helping others? And like the Genie, he also had a “master” that goes by the name of “depression”. Robin Williams suffered from deep depression, but did he also suffer from bipolar disorder? Was his comedic euphoria simply a well-balanced manic episode? He once told Matt Lauer in a TV interview that he had been advised to take medication for his depression, but that the medication brought him down. He said he didn’t feel like himself when he was on the meds, and he was unable to stay “up”. For myself, my manic episodes typically resulted in violence and not euphoria, and I was happy to find that medication and therapy helped me to avoid mania. But Robin William’s “ups” were what made him so funny, and funny brought success. They defined him. Was he afraid that he would lose his comedic abilities if he suppressed his mania with medication in an attempt to battle his depression?

Actor and producer Garry Marshall recalled his friendship with Robin Williams, saying, “Robin was hands-down a comedy genius and one of the most talented performers I have ever worked with in television or film. To lose him so young at the age of 63 is just a tragedy. I will forever be in awe of his timing, his talent and his pure and golden creativity. He could make everybody happy, but himself.”

“He could make everybody happy, but himself”.

Why didn’t someone step in to help the Genie? Why didn’t someone recognize his depression and help him? If he was afraid to lose his “high” because of meds, didn’t he know that there were other options? Or that there were other medications that could have had different results? He obviously was not afraid to admit that depression was an issue for him. We all know that the first step to wellness is admitting there is a problem to begin with. He didn’t try to hide it; he discussed it openly. He widely acknowledged that he had a problem. And he clearly had the financial resources to seek help, which is not an option for so many people suffering from mental illness. So often, those of us held down by mental incapacitation cannot afford our medications or therapy. And when I hear of someone taking their own life, I automatically want to blame it on a lack of resources. If someone with seemingly endless amounts of money, access to the best doctors and therapists, support from a loving family and community, and more friends than he could count could not overcome his depression, what does that mean for the rest of us? Robin Williams must have known he was loved. Loved by millions. How must that have felt to know that he brought laughter to so many people, but was unable to make himself happy? If someone that remarkable could not find happiness, where does that leave an ordinary me?

When a high-profile death occurs that can be attributed to drugs, alcohol or mental deficiency, there is always the opportunity to shed light on these issues. We sit up and take notice. These unfortunate opportunities perhaps help to reduce the stigmas associated with diseases like mental illness or addiction. We realize that we are not alone in our struggle, that even someone larger than life, someone like Robin Williams, must have at times felt alone and unable to cope with his internal demons. His death makes depression real, and hopefully it will raise awareness of mental illness. But in me, it also elicits fear. Because now I feel that if Robin Williams cannot successfully battle his depression, how will it be possible for me?

In the movie “The Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams’ character told his students, “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world”. So here are some words and ideas for all of us to ponder: seek help. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, I promise. I have to promise, because I so desperately want to believe it myself. Please don’t let your depression ruin your opportunity for a healthy and happy life. Please think of those people you would leave behind. Is your unhappiness so great that you can disregard the feelings those you love will have after you leave? The devastation and loss they will feel without you in their lives?

Robin Williams had millions of fans. He was surrounded by love and support. But maybe it was the wrong kind of support, or not enough of it because in the end, he died alone in his room. The genie retreated to his bottle one last time.

Following Robin Williams’ death, I have felt a little lost. I want to believe I am strong enough to battle my own depression, but is it true? I want to take my own advice, follow my own “words and ideas”. But I doubt my abilities. I doubt my own strength.

In the movie “Aladdin”, the Genie turns a regular kid into a prince. He had the ability to make a common “street rat” into Prince Ali. But all the Genie wanted was to be happy. He wanted to be released from his bonds that held him down and kept him from being truly happy. And at the end of the film, Prince Ali granted the genie the ultimate wish:

“Genie, you’re free”. And Robin? So are you.

In Control

I like to feel sorry for myself.  I like hearing a “woe is me” story from a friend, knowing I can outdo her on any level of sadness.  No matter what bad thing has happened to someone else, should she choose to share it with me I can usually top it with some horror story from my past.  It’s a pretty selfish personality trait, one from which I derive almost no sympathy.  But it’s taken me years to realize I’m not doing it for the sympathy, or empathy of others.  I’m doing it because I like to believe my sorrowful past and present is a direct result of my bipolar disorder, and that gives me something on which to blame it all.

To shed some light on my past, I should give you a few examples of what I consider to be a life full of unfortunate happenings.  For starters, my sister died before I was born.  I never met her – I just like to tell people I lost a sister because it gives me an excuse to be sad.  Additionally, my older brother died in a plane crash when I was 23 and my father died of a heart attack on the floor of my children’s playroom while I stood and watched because I couldn’t remember how to do CPR.  My only surviving sibling doesn’t much like me or my disease and therefore doesn’t speak to me, my husband left me after 17 years of marriage, and I cannot find a full-time job to help pay my mounting pile of bills.  In addition, my non-smoking mom was just diagnosed with lung cancer and my 10-year old daughter has Oppositional Defiance Disorder and is likely also bipolar.

Yeah, yeah – I realize that my problems are trivial in comparison to what is going on in the world around me.  Wars and global warming and starving children.  I am aware of all that, and yet the selfish person who I am refuses to recognize that there is anything wrong with any part of the world that does not directly concern me.  It’s like I’m oblivious to anything or anyone other than myself and my problems.  Selfish?  You bet.  Incredibly, ridiculously selfish.  But it’s as if I can’t help myself.

I often refer to a great book called, “Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder” by Julie A. Fast.  The book was intended for the spouse or partner of someone suffering from bipolar, but I don’t have a spouse or a partner anymore so I read it hoping to learn to love myself.  The book repeatedly references the selfishness of those suffering from bipolar disorder.  They can only think of themselves.  They think they are the only ones with real problems.  They believe their lives are worse than anyone’s around them.  I recognize that I am incredibly selfish, and it’s not a trait I’m proud of.  But as I mentioned earlier, I can’t seem to focus on any problems but mine.

In addition, bipolar people are often narcissists.  I believe there is a direct link between believing yourself to be better than everyone else and wanting everyone to feel sorry for you.  Part of being a narcissist is believing that you have control over the world and what happens in it.  For example, if only I had known CPR, perhaps my father would still be alive.  Control.  If only I had recognized my bipolar disorder earlier, then I could have sought treatment before my behavior became so intolerable that my husband could no longer remain with me.  Control.  If I had known that I was bipolar and that my future children had a 20% increased chance of becoming bipolar as a result of genetics, I could have prevented my young daughter from possibly developing the disorder by simply not having children.  Control.  Ridiculous and unrealistic expectations of control.

I also feel like my bad luck is contagious.  Don’t get too close, it might rub off on you.  Sometimes I believe my bad luck extends to the outcome of my son’s baseball game; I’ve had a rough day, so I shouldn’t attend or he will surely lose.  I probably shouldn’t go to the picnic or it might rain because of me.  Bad luck follows me around so be sure to keep your distance.  A pathetic state of mind, don’t you think?  My therapist thinks so.  Once, in the middle of a tirade about how I was directly or indirectly the cause of all bad things that had happened in my life or in the lives of those around me, she stopped me to declare, “My goodness.  I wish I had that kind of power.  Imagine what I could use it for.  The power to control people’s lives and the events of your own.  I would love being that powerful”

I felt like an idiot.

But she was right.  Who was I to think I had the kind of power to control whether or not someone dies, or someone’s team wins or loses, or whether my child develops bipolar or not?  My perception was that I was in control of all of these things, when the truth is that I am only in control of what happens to my own person on a day-to-day basis.  And what happens to me each day is largely dependent on my mood, which is largely dependent on the current state of my disorder.  I’m not really in control of my illness, even though my doctors assure me I should be.  Sure, I can do DBT and ECT and take medication to help control it, but the true reality is that it controls me.  My bipolar determines, indirectly, how I spend my days and whether I’m happy or sad.  It decides if I’m feeling up to going to the movies, or prefer to stay within the confines of my safe, warm bed all day.  It determines whether I yell at my kids or shower them with indulgences.  When it gets bad, it decides that I will undergo ECT with the hope that voluntary electrocution will set me straight, buying me a few more weeks of relative sanity.  My bipolar disorder defines me, because I let it.  Because it gives me an excuse to be pathetic.  Because it allows me to fall back on my stories of sorrow and woe.  My disorder allows me to be the “winner” of the “who has a more terrible life” competition.  At least I get to win at something.

Do I hope that someday I will be in completely in control of my bipolar disorder, instead of it being in control of me?  You betcha.  I’m just not there yet.

“Pure Happiness”

I take a lot of pictures, mostly of my children.  I do it partly because I am afraid that my ECT will erase precious memories of my three babies that I won’t ever get back.  And I do it partly because I think my kids are so darned cute…..

And because I take so many photographs, I spend a lot of time looking at them on my computer.  Again, I find that they help me see parts of my past that I wouldn’t otherwise recall.  Typically, there are few pictures of me amongst the thousands of my children and the rest of my family.  But while on vacation, I asked the waiter at the restaurant where my children and I were celebrating with Easter dinner if he would please snap a quick picture of the four of us.  It would be the first photographic “documentation” of my new family dynamic since separating from my husband nearly a year ago.  When I downloaded the pictures today, I was pleased to see that the picture of my foursome came out really well.  So well, in fact, I made it my Facebook profile picture.  And within a short amount of time, the feedback on that picture was so positive.  I received compliments I hadn’t heard in months – maybe even years.  The one compliment that really hit me was, “Pure happiness on all your faces!”  And as I looked again at the photograph, I realized my friend was right – all four of us had huge, happy smiles.  “Pure Happiness”.

After hearing such surprising input regarding one small Easter family photo, I started scrolling through the rest of my digital pictures on the computer.  I realized that I could plot my (un)happiness during the last five years just from whether or not I was smiling in a picture.  And, sadly, there are not a lot of smiles on my face.  In fact, there is not one smiling “me” in any pictures taken on any holiday for the last three years.  Sure, there are forced pleasantries and more smirks than I could count, but I’m talking about REAL smiles.  You know, the ones your parents begged to document after your $2000 orthodontist work was completed in your teens?  The REAL smiles involve teeth.  Big, happy, toothy smiles.  And I realized that those smiles and my face didn’t coexist in more than about a dozen pictures taken in recent history.

Pathetic.

Too quickly I recognized that my manic episodes (which are never the euphoric, ecstatic kind but instead the violent, angry kind) and my deep depressions were all too obvious in my iPhoto compilations.  I could actually tell when in my life I had been “normal”, and sadly that wasn’t very often in recent history.  The few times I was photographed with a smile of “pure happiness” typically coincided with the births of my children, romantic getaways with my husband, time spent with my dad or with lifelong friends, and visits to my childhood home with my children.  There are the pictures taken during last spring break when my husband and I brought our children to Santa Barbara to see where we met, attended college, worked together and got married.  “Pure Happiness” smiles on my face in every shot.

I place tremendous value on those pictures – they document a time in my history when I was truly happy, when I had not a care in the world.  It is my hope that I will be able to share more and more of those “pure happiness” pictures with my family and friends in the near future.  I want to believe that is the “real me”, the smiling woman in the photograph who recognizes that despite her heartbreak, her mental illness, and the other difficulties life has thrown her way, life is good.  Life will be good.  I just have to be patient and work hard and take each day one at a time.  I have decided today that I am going to achieve “pure happiness”.

It just might take a little while, so bear with me.